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Dr Anna Lembke: The smartphone has become the modern-day hypodermic needle

The Stanford professor examines how social media is driving our digital dependence, and what we can do to break the habit.

Dr Anna Lembke

Updated Oct 14th 2021, 3:00 PM

THE WORLD RECENTLY experienced a forced period of abstinence from Facebook’s social media tools. We all went into collective withdrawal. Here’s why.

We’re wired to connect. It’s what has kept us alive for millions of years in a world of scarcity and ever-present danger. Moving in tribes safeguards against predators optimises scarce resources and facilitates pair bonding.

Our brains release dopamine when we make human connections, which incentivises us to do it again. Dopamine is our reward neurotransmitter, and also the main chemical involved in addiction.

A new kind of need

But today, social connection has become druggified by social media apps, making us all vulnerable to compulsive overconsumption. Instead of releasing a little bit of dopamine in our brain’s reward pathway, social media apps have the potential to release much larger quantities all at once, just like heroin or meth or alcohol.

Social media apps become drugs by augmenting the features of human connection that make any substance or behaviour addictive: Access, quantity, potency, and novelty.

Increased access is obvious. The smartphone has become the modern-day hypodermic needle, delivering digital dopamine for a wired generation.

The quantity is endless. Instagram never runs out.

Potency is created by increasing the feel-good properties that attract humans to each other in the first place. Beautiful faces are made more beautiful, and even not-so-beautiful ones can be enhanced with filters.

‘Followers’ and ‘leaders’ in vast numbers, all sharing the same emotional experience at the same time, is a potent source of dopamine. For reasons we don’t yet fully understand, enumeration is linked to reward.

With rankings and numbers of likes, we’re easily hooked, tracking our numeric success like dope fiends. (I can personally attest to this as I tracked the rankings of my book sales on Amazon when it first came out until I was able to snap out of it and stop … sort of.).

An addictive combination

And potency is enhanced by combining drugs together. Like mixing heroin with a little Xanax, social media apps combine beautiful faces with stories with games with sex with money … the list goes on.

Finally, there’s novelty. Dopamine is triggered by our brain’s search-and-explore functions, the part that says ‘hey pay attention to this, something new has come along.’ Add to that the AI algorithms that learn what we’ve liked before and suggest new things that are similar but not exactly the same, and we’re off and running.

At the end of the day, social media feels good while we’re doing it and horrible as soon as we stop. It makes us feel crappy because it plunges us into a dopamine deficit state as our brains attempt to adapt to the unnaturally high levels of dopamine it releases.

Further, our brains are not equipped to process the millions of comparisons the virtual world demands. Overwhelmed by our inability to measure up to these perfect and amazing people who exist only in the Matrix, we give up trying and sink into depression, or what neuroscientists called ‘learned helplessness’.

Digital detox 

The antidote to all of this is to take a period of time away from social media. Yes, to recreate the abstinence that the Facebook outage created for us, but for longer. How long? At least a day, and for those who are severely addicted, a month or more is probably necessary.

As I talk about in my book, a month is usually the minimum amount of time we need away from our drug of choice, whether it’s heroin or Instagram, to reset our dopamine reward pathways, decrease the anxiety and depression that social media can induce, and be able to enjoy other more modest rewards again. The time away also allows us to see the true impact of our compulsive overconsumption on our lives.

To prepare for our quit date, we can let other in our social media circles know in advance that we’ll be away, which alerts them to our absence and also holds us accountable to our pending dopamine fast. If and when we return to using social media, we can return to more moderate use by putting barriers in place, or what I call in my book, self-binding strategies.

These can take many forms, but in essence are physical and metacognitive barriers between ourselves and our drug of choice to help us limit consumption. Things like consolidating our social media use to certain times of the day, avoiding certain apps that suck us into the vortex, and prioritising apps that connect us with real people in our real lives, as we continue to be mindful of how our online engagement makes us feel not just in the moment, but also after we use.

9781472294128(1) Lembke's book is released at the end of October. Source: Dr Anna Lembke

Sometimes people ask me ‘What are the studies showing that smartphones are addictive?’

Really? We need studies? Look around you. Is there a human being left who is not nose-glued? See those people huddled together in groups of five and six on the street corner, fixated on the thing in their hands? No not smokers. At least smokers talk to each other.

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Will we look back in 50 to 100 years at the way we use smartphones today and wonder what the heck we were thinking? Not unlike the way we look back at cigarettes ads from the 1940s showing doctors smoking and think: Those idiots! Didn’t they realise smoking is bad for you?!

Let us not be those idiots 50 years from now.

Dr Anna Lembke is a Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Stanford University. Dopamine Nation by Dr Anna Lembke will be published by Headline Books on 28th October.

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Dr Anna Lembke

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